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Advanced Photography Technique: Shooting into Light and Why it's Awesome

I was recently shooting an outdoor wedding, and as I was getting settled right before the ceremony, one of the guests, let's call him Uncle Bob, called me over and wanted to commiserate with me about "how terrible it is that the Chuppah is back-lit and the sun was right behind where the speakers would stand", and he remarked that "it's so terrible shooting into light, don't you hate it?"

Nothing could be further from the truth of how I feel shooting into light. It's something JJ Abrams and I have in common.

(This is the scene of the chuppah back-lit below - I found it inspiring and was excited to shoot the chuppah, the speakers, and the couple bathed in sunlight from behind - many photographers would be unhappy about it being back-lit)

And here's an image from that ceremony - I love the 'airiness' of the image, something that I am able to achieve when shooting back-lit images.

Uncle Bob isn't alone in this thinking; it's a common photography rule that many adhere to: "avoid shooting into light". Why? Because sometimes you get lens flare and oftentimes your subjects are in shadow because your camera is adjusting the settings for the whole frame, not the subjects.

Let's shrug off that old, passé notion and allow me show you how to shoot effectively into light and create magical and unique images.


How to shoot into light effectively?

First, if your goal is to achieve that light, airy quality, make sure your camera is in Manual Mode or use the exposure compensator dial to overexpose the scene. In all other modes, your camera sensor will read the scene and determine that there is a lot of brightness in the image and it will compensate by making the image darker than we want it to be.

We want to expose our shot for our subjects and make sure they are brightly lit.

So, put your camera in Manual Mode and adjust your settings to what's appropriate and don't be afraid to push it - go ahead and blow out the whites! Yes, the sky will be blown out, and the whites will lose all data, but this is what we're going for; this will create that light and airy look.

Now that you've mastered the light, airy look, attempt the opposite and create silhouettes. Expose for the light source, not the subjects, and this will cause the subjects to be dark and shadowed creating a silhouette. Windows and sunsets are easy pickings for silhouettes, but any light source will do.

Playing with light sources is one of the greatest joys of photography, so, don't be afraid to try new techniques, even if initial failure is ther result. For every successful and awesome shot I take, there are a slew of other hilarious or poor attempts. It's part of the wonderful process.

Additional advice and examples...

1.) Something that works really well when shooting towards the sun is to adjust the color temperature either before taking the photo, or afterwards in an editing program. Choose a warm setting for that soft golden glow (hint: if there is a color temperature/balance slider, inch it towards the yellow end, not the blue end).

2. Keeping the sun (or light source) in the frame of the image will allow for lens flare if that is something you desire:

Engagement shoot Race Street Pier, Philadelphia

Redwood trees bathed in sunlight

​3. Keeping the light source just outside the frame will avoid lens flare. The light continues to back-light the subjects, creating gorgeous golden outlines that look amazing when they highlight a subject, especially a subject with long hair.

4. Any light source will do, so, if you have a flash you can mount off camera, shoot towards the flash and open yourself to an endless world of creativity.

For more info and a deeper dive, check out Strobist, the go-to website for flash photography.

5.) Don't forget to try silhouettes. Adjust your settings to expos for the light source, NOT your subjects. Hence, your subjects with be dark, without much definition. This creates a more graphic, striking image, which looks amazing in black and white because the contrast is already so strong.

City Hall Philadelphia wedding photography

Landscapes as silhouettes are a favorite of mine, and are reflected heavily in my travel photography. I use the sun to silhouette trees, buttes, mountains,....anything.

6.) Using the silhouette technique with windows produces great results - place your subject in front of the window, and wait for the right moment in which their human form is doing something interesting.

7.) For more abstract imagery, try using the technique of shooting into light while shooting through something. Anything translucent/transparent will do, like sheer fabric or even water.

Check out these portraits I took of fellow photographer, Laurentina, shot in the rain.

(I do not advise doing this unless you have weatherproofed gear.)

When is shooting into light bad?

1.) When the lens flare obscures part of the subject in a negative way. Here's a prime example:

Bad lens flare fail, shooting into light

Wow! Sasha's crotch is exploding with the power of a million suns! This is most definitely a lens flare FAIL.

2.) When the light washes the image out too much for it to be used - it looses contrast and sharpness.

Overall, the photo above isn't too bad, but, out of a slew of shots of this speaker, there are more effective images that aren't washed out - those were chosen instead.

There you have it - not all rules and traditions need to be adhered to, especially the photography adage of not shooting towards light sources; you may be able to create something magical when you break the rules. So get out, explore, try shooting towards light and see what happens.



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